Two Sundays ago I wrote about feminist theologians Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker’s charge that Christianity can function as a kind of opiate for females if it induces them to think of masochism as a virtue. They argue that Christianity teaches us to live more fully in the world, not turn from it. We should focus on Christ’s life and his search for justice and not make a fetish of his suffering.
A passage from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones came to mind as I read their argument. It is the moment when Sophia Western, the novel’s heroine, thinks of sacrificing herself to her father’s pleasure, even if it means marrying the horrible Blifil. What saves her from a life of misery is an internal impulse which, while not traditionally associated with Christianity, helps us revise our notions of spirituality.
Here’s the situation in the novel. Sophia has fallen in love with Tom but can’t marry him because he’s a bastard. Her father insists that she marry Blifil so that the two estates that they will one day inherit can be joined. Squire Western won’t take “no” for an answer, nor will Blifil. Blifil’s motivations are not only monetary. In addition to lust for both Sophia’s money and her body, Blifil has what Fielding describes as a “distinguishing Taste,” and it is this which marks him as a true villain. Blifil relishes the prospect of raping her once she is his wife. The fact that she hates him will just add to his enjoyment:
[Blifil] had the distinguishing Taste, which serves to direct Men in their Choice of the Objects, or Food of their several Appetites; and this taught him to consider Sophia as a most delicious Morsel, indeed to regard her with the same Desires which an Ortolan [small bird] inspires into the Soul on Epicure. Now the Agonies which affected the Mind of Sophia rather augmented than impaired her Beauty; for her Tears added Brightness to her Eyes, and her Breasts rose higher with her Sighs. Indeed no one hath seen Beauty in its highest Luster, who hath never seen it in Distress. Blifil therefore looked on this human Ortolan with greater Desire than when he had viewed her last; nor was his Desire at all lessened by the Aversion which he discovered in her to himself. On the contrary, this served rather to heighten the Pleasure he proposed in rifling her Charms, as it added Triumph to Lust; nay, he had some further Views, from obtaining the absolute Possession of her Person, which we detest too much even to mention . . .
Fielding may have in mind here Lovelace, the ravisher of Clarissa in Samuel Richardson’s novel of that name. It is noteworthy that Clarissa was one of the Marquis de Sade’s favorite books and may be a model for his sadistic novel Justine. I make the connection to emphasize Blifil’s own sadism.
Blifil is what awaits Sophia if she cannot stand up to her tyrannical father and her equally tyrannical aunt. For the longest time she heroically resists their unrelenting pressure. Then the dangerous lure of saintly masochism rears its head. This occurs after her father, after having long berated her, suddenly (albeit temporarily) turns nice and praises her. Suddenly all of her resistance threatens to melt:
The latter part of Mr. Western’s behavior had so strong an effect on the tender heart of Sophia, that it suggested a thought to her, which not all the sophistry of her politic aunt, nor all the menaces of her father, had ever once brought into her head. She reverenced her father so piously, and loved him so passionately, that she had scarce ever felt more pleasing sensations, than what arose from the share she frequently had of contributing to his amusement, and sometimes, perhaps, to higher gratifications; for he never could contain the delight of hearing her commended, which he had the satisfaction of hearing almost every day of her life. The idea, therefore, of the immense happiness she should convey to her father by her consent to this match, made a strong impression on her mind. Again, the extreme piety of such an act of obedience worked very forcibly, as she had a very deep sense of religion. Lastly, when she reflected how much she herself was to suffer, being indeed to become little less than a sacrifice, or a martyr, to filial love and duty, she felt an agreeable tickling in a certain little passion, which though it bears no immediate affinity either to religion or virtue, is often so kind as to lend great assistance in executing the purposes of both.
I love the way that Fielding is careful to distinguish the act of sacrificing oneself from either religion or virtue, even while he acknowledges it has been used in their cause. He then notes that this also tickles a dangerous pride that lurks within the heroine:
Sophia was charmed with the contemplation of so heroic an action, and began to compliment herself with much premature flattery . . .
Fortunately, something comes to her aid. The muff referred to in the continuation of the sentence is an object that by this point in the novel has taken on a sexual double entendre. Literally, it is Sophia’s muff that she discovers Tom that has caressed. But it also hints at Sophia’s sexuality, and it is her very earthly love of Tom that saves her from the masochism that has been masquerading as a higher spirituality. Here’s the entire passage:
Sophia was charmed with the contemplation of so heroic an action, and began to compliment herself with much premature flattery, when Cupid, who lay hid in her muff, suddenly crept out, and like Punchinello in a puppet-show, kicked all out before him. In truth (for we scorn to deceive our reader, or to vindicate the character of our heroine by ascribing her actions to supernatural impulse) the thoughts of her beloved Jones, and some hopes (however distant) in which he was very particularly concerned, immediately destroyed all which filial love, piety, and pride had, with their joint endeavors, been laboring to bring about.
I mentioned that Sophia’s saving impulse is not traditionally associated with Christianity. What we see here is love and sexual desire combining to bring Sophia to her senses. For Fielding, there is something practically holy about this life force and, for that matter, something holy about comedy, including comic Punch and Judy shows. He is suspicious of bloodless Christianity, which he regards as not true Christianity. He sees comedy as a way of jerking the rug out from under pious hypocrites.
Literary scholar Martin C. Battestin years ago saw Tom Jones as a novel about a generous and lusty hero who lives life to the fullest but who, in order to grow to manhood, must learn to temper his full-throated love of life with worldly and spiritual wisdom–which is to say, with prudence and (roll of drums) sophia, the Greek word for higher wisdom. His attainment of Sophia by the end of the novel is a sign that he has arrived.
Fielding doesn’t explore Sophia’s growth in quite such detail but, in attaining Tom at the end of the novel, she has rounded out her angelic nature with earthy engagement with the world. The novel quickly notes that they go on to have two children.
It’s a wholesome vision and one of the reasons why Tom Jones is one of my favorite novels. He’s preaching a Christianity that I can believe in.